Ashes of Time Redux: Wong Kar-wai as a Poet of Memory

In 2046, Wong Kar-wai’s eighth film, Tony Leung Chiu-wai plays a journalist and writer (the same character he plays in In the Mood for Love), that begins to write science-fiction as an additional income when journalist work dries up. The story that he writes, also called 2046, set in the distant future about people who travel to 2046 (whether it is a time or a place is never explained) in order to live in the memories of their lost loves, a place from where no one has ever returned. Scenes from 2046 punctuate the narrative as a parallel as Leung comes to realise that he is writing about himself.


Unable to come to terms with the failure of his relationship with Su Li-Zhen (played by the multi-talented Maggie Cheung) in In the Mood for Love, he too longs to live in his memories of the past and as a result all the relationships he forms during the film ultimately fail. The relationship between time and memory is one that on the part of memory is dependant; only through the passage of time can memory persist. If, as Tony Rayns says, Wong Kar-wai is a poet of time, he is also a poet of memory because his films go further than expressing the relationship between time and memory, this relationship also plays a large part in his narratives. Nowhere is this more evident than in his 1994 wuxia pian film, the underrated Ashes of Time (Dōngxié Xīdú), recut and reedited in 2008 as Ashes of Time Redux.

For first time viewers, Ashes of Time can seem rather confusing. Wuxia pian movies as a rule generally consist of a straight forward narrative punctuated by breathtaking action sequences, but true to Wong Kar-wai form, Ashes of Time employs non-linear chronology and heavy use of both ellipsis and lacunae. The pacing is also much slower than a typical wuxia film, bogged down by dialogue-heavy scenes and the type of lingering camera shot that has become a recognizable part of Wong Kar-wai’s mise en scène. The beautiful cinematography of Christopher Doyle is comprised mostly of slow motion shots and wide-angle close ups, giving the film a more personal feel than an epic one. The narrative is composed of a number of episodes involving various characters that involves a laxness that can make it difficult to follow, but all gravitate around the late Leslie Chueng, who plays Ouyang Feng, a swordsman who lives in the desert and acts as a broker for people who need the services of a swordsman.  Wong seems consciously aware of the problem and deals with it by structuring the movie using the common Hong-Kong principle of reel-by-reel plotting, which allows him to split the movie into ten or twenty minute sections, depending on whether the narrative requires one reel or two (in recutting the film, he further separates the movie by adding “seasons”).

The film’s narrative for the most part is directed by the arrival of visitors seeking Ouyang Feng in the desert. His friend Huang Yaoshi who visits him once a year (played by Tony Leung Kar-fai) does so on the behest of a woman (again played by Maggie Cheung), Ouyang’s former lover who married his brother instead. Huang is in love with a woman he once met bathing her horse in the river, Peach Blossom (Carina Lau). She is the wife of a swordsman who comes to visit Ouyang looking for work that is starting to lose his sight (Tony Leung Chui-wai).  Feng is also visited by Murong Yin and Murong Yang, a brother and sister who may be the same person (both played by Brigitte Lin in a transgender role reminiscent of her others) despite the sister’s attempts to have her brother killed, as well as a young girl seeking revenge (Charlie Yeung) with no way to pay and a penniless swordsman looking to work (Jacky Cheung). While it may seem confusing, the plot structure essentially is similar to Days of Being Wild, in that it consists of love triangles that revolve around Ouyang, a man that becomes self-centred as a result of his memories of a past love. What complicates it is the narrative is out of sequence, we do not learn about Ouyang’s past until the final two reels of the film in which we see the woman refuse to leave with him, the end of relationship paralleled by the falling of a lamp.

Each character who visits Ouyang Feng is affected by memories of past relationships in some way. Huang is haunted by his meeting with the beautiful Peach Blossom, shown in flashback as the camera lingers on the sensation of her grooming her horse in the river, and the nearly blind swordsman also holds on to the memory of once again seeing “the peach blossoms” of his home town one last time before he loses his sight. The Murongs are obsessed with Huang, owing to an earlier encounter where he played a trick on them, with the consequences being the brother’s thirst for vengeance and the sister’s descent into madness. The man that Ouyang becomes is a direct result of the memory of his lost love as those memories are the cause of his pain, better to forget if he could, but he can’t. The landscape of the film mirrors the emptiness of the characters, a dystopian desert that serves as a terminus for those attempting to run away from the past.

In the last visit that Huang pays to him, he brings a final gift from the woman, wine that causes a loss of memory, but in the end he tells us that it does not work, it was just one final joke on her part. Even when he takes on a setting as magical as wuxia, for Wong there is no easy way out. As David Bordwell notes, the men act impulsively or withdraw moodily, while the women wait, traditional discussions of combat strategies are replaced by monologues on regret and lost loves. What would be cliché under the hand of most directors becomes art when Wong’s skill as an auteur is combined with Doyle’s wonderful cinematography.  The end result is a film that is more reminiscent of the human drama of a Wong Kar-wai film dressed up as wuxia than an actual film of the genre. The fighting is replaced by longing and the wounds are those of memory.

– originally published 11/13/2010

A lifelong lover of fantastic literature and sequential art, Paul Smith is a post graduate philosophy student and the man behind the up and coming literary criticism blog, Empty Your Heart of its Mortal Dream. If he could be any comic book superhero, he would be Blackagar Boltagon.